The curse of a cover

My first ever contact with the astonishing comprimate of J. G. Ballard’s “Crash” in mere two minutes, was not through the original song by Mute Records’ supremo Daniel Miller but due its title appearing on one of Grace Jones’s releases. I was 10 years old and summer holidays were already at pace – my parents gave me some pocket money to spend and what could I possibly have spent it on but a cassette. The primary choice was “Little Creatures” by Talking Heads but due my pocket cash being well under the Heads’ cassette price range, among those affordable was Grace Jones’s “Island Life” compilation. Listening to the contents and observing the information on the inner side of the cassette wrapper, I spotted this unusual phrase, which many years later I’ve finally encountered in its original audible form, via “Nervous Systems” – one of Mute’s promotional samplers released by mid-90s, the golden age of the grey area through which my personal discovery of avantgarde noise began.

Once “Warm Leatherette” came piercing out through the speakers, it was an instant romance – the joy of speed in combination with self-mutilation through speed expressed so graphically in its lyrics. Daniel Miller’s (aka The Normal, but that don’t need any special introduction now) kickstart can be observed as brutal assault on Kraftwerk’s more sensual “Autobahn” – in “Warm Leatherette”, the passenger is not astonished by the environment, he is astonished by the level of blood pressure bursting out through vessels, blood splattering all over the front glass. The electronic drill coupled along with sexually deviant lyrics is at the same time frightening and fascinating, providing a merciless grab for listeners’ attention. But what actually makes “Warm Leatherette” so astonishing is capturing the essence of J. G. Ballard’s (in)famous novel in modest two minutes. The only other example I can think of in similar terms of lyrical perfection, is undoubtedly The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”, where Robert Smith took the spine of Albert Camus’s novel and created an intense 3-minute atmosphere, which inevitably caused controversy on the back of a suggested title.

However, both these songs are hard to find in a cover form. “Warm Leatherette” especially, due its explicitly minimalist nature. Most attempts so far remain evident of the unsurpassed power of the original version – making most of these attempts sound like mere “remix” improvements, which remain loyal within the electronic music’s underground field; Pankow, for example, did their own version around 1989. Maybe that one is the singlest rare document I was aware of at one point, besides the one that made Grace Jones’s the most unique back in 1980 (she even titled a whole album of covers after Miller’s synthie masterpiece, and mind you – there was also “Living My Life” which dared striping off DAF’s “Alle Gegen Alle” to an elegantly tough version). In 1985, Glenn O’Brien commented, somewhat subjectively, how “her cover of “Warm Leatherette” makes the original totally obsolete. She makes you feel what the song is about.”

But besides Grace Jones and Pankow’s (for me personally, rather shallow) take, there was a cast of thousands who were fascinated by – or simply stalked – “Warm Leatherette” for their own ends. Among them, Die Tödliche Doris made the most critically amazing “anybody-can-do-it” version, deliberately stripping it down to a 50 seconds snapshot, rid of any melody/rhythm structure to hysterically humouristic results.

Then there was Sleep Chamber – releasing their own version in mid-80s, even adding their own extra lyrics to the original, but as far as it goes, it’s just a typical cover of its time by a band that fancied Clint Ruin (who later turns out to have also produced a cover of “Warm Leatherette”) and/or Steve Albini. Then there was a Canadian group called Prayer Tower providing their own version, a little closer to that of amazing Grace – slower, sensual, yet cold still, EBM drum pattern accompanied with indifferent vocals on top. Club 69 were also in it but their version (or say, number of versions) is sadly done for exploiting the dancefloor for dancefloor’s sake, losing the song’s essence (but then again, it’s probably one of those rare, brave attempts to give the original some new auditive meaning). In a rather messy list of further attempts (courtesy Wikipedia), “Warm Leatherette” obviously became over-exploited as 2000s started kicking in – Chicks On Speed and DJ Hell, Richard X, Takkyu Ishino, Signal Electrique, Vitalic, Destruction Unit, Erik Friedlander with Teho Teardo, Zombie-Zombie (one of the most irritating), BlizzFrizz, Trent Reznor and Peter Murphy with Jeordie White and Atticus Ross, even Duran Duran suddenly became aware of its potential performing it live (mashed up with their own hit “All She Wants Is”), plus HIV+, Rubin Steiner, Depressed Children, Genevieve Pasquier, Mindburner, EchoHALO, Tarsus, Naith Vault and finally – Laibach (whose version I’ve heard on their live concert performed last year).

Somewhere down the leatherette line, Mute Records shortly presented online an interesting snippet of “Warm Leatherette” performed by its selection of protegés in “band aid” fashion – Nitzer Ebb, Frank Tovey (!) and (currently reformed) Yazoo – strangely enough, this snippet disappeared suddenly. Alan Wilder has also performed it live recently in his Recoil live sets. Among this mess of personal 2-minutes-of-fame deliveries, Velocity Star or Boyd Rice with Giddle Partridge didn’t even bother to create their own music for “Warm Leatherette” – besides vocal takes, for most part, their versions are pointing out how pointless such a cover can actually be. Velocity Star features Rose McDowall, and probably fares much better than that of Rice/Partridge fame. Boyd Rice, the prank master, simply added some discreet reverb to Miller’s basic track and the pair lazily masturbate all over, which makes it sound like a very bad karaoke. In cases like these, using original segments, Analogue Brain did a far more decent job of actually “remixing” it – injecting fresh blood by brutalising Daniel Miller’s choice of words with overlayered synthetic noise.

Among the lot, there is also Dirk Ivens, a true (and rather obsessive) enthusiast regarding minimal electronics’ art brut who’s had his own vision of the song with Dive, Blok 57 and Absolute Body Control respectively. However, Ivens, despite creating otherwise fascinatingly aggressive minimal electronic music himself, simply intended to do literal stripped down tribute versions – although this was not the only such attempt of his – on Dive’s cover set called “Extended Play”, Ivens payed respect to a selected list of influences, but most of these covers rely on minimalism to emulate rather than improve. Usually, there is just too much over-exaggerated, drilling distortion (especially in the vocals) which provides a boring listen to an otherwise irresistible speed pattern – which Ivens repeats with his set of “Warm Leatherettes”. In the end, “Warm Leatherette” traps itself – either in original form or occasional cover attempt. I am not familiar whether it was ever used for a cars TV commercial. I wonder if any of today’s mainstream acts would dare touching the sacred cow and cut a slice for themselves. As long as it’s not countless Spearses or Germanottas. I guess, that would reach its peak – at the same time being the ultimate failure – and the ultimate triumph in the wake of already established, deserved cultural impact. Grace Jones still remains one and only in the latter’s favours.

1/2, May 2012

 

The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” originally written by Daniel Miller.
Released on the 7” single (STUMM1, Mute Records, 1978).

J. G. Ballard’s “Crash” first published in 1973 by Jonathan Cape

Negative image: from a portrait of J. G. Ballard by an unknown author

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